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Not (just) Mercurial

Not (just) Mercurial

I wrote this after reading the responses to the South Africa defeat, as well as an email conversation. It’s a bit late, but we promise to refund the money you paid for it. 

Parchi Khan via Cricinfo

Pakistan can be a really annoying country to write about. Cliches and simplistic conclusions are eternally seductive, begging you to forsake the country’s considerable complexities in the favour of a neat, one lined, probably humorous summation of the state of affairs.

Take the gutless defeat at the hands of South Africa the other day. It was the second time in as many matches that the Pakistani batting had collapsed more theatrically than a footballer in the Clasico. For most scribes – both within and beyond Pakistan – the copy literally wrote itself. Captain Courageous and the brilliant bowlers were no match for the batsmen’s ineptness. Pakistan, who had entered the tournament as dark horses – even favourites – had now become the first team to be knocked out.

There are two stock clichés that are used in such moments, and were certainly out in full force in the aftermath of Edgbaston. The first is that Pakistan is inherently mercurial, and the second is that the current technical faults are the cause of Pakistan’s post-2009 nomadic lifestyle. I would like to take this moment to savage both of these claims.

For starters, claiming that Pakistan are nomads is a wonderful scenario to workwith. In this case, we see that one incident – the 2009 terrorist attacks on the Sri Lankan team (as well as the umpires and match referees) led to the end of international cricket in Pakistan. All ‘home’ matches now had to be played elsewhere, and there are players who have become veterans without ever having played a match at home. The anxiety of constant travel, the consequent homesickness, the lack of familiarity or consistency are all described as factors in the nebulous diseased mass which stands in as the reason for Pakistan’s failures. Many people feel very good about themselves when they suggest – nay, demand! – that efforts be made to integrate Pakistan into regular cricket etc.

How very sweet. In response, I give you a number – 11.

Eleven is the number of years before the 2009 attacks that Australia hadn’t toured Pakistan in. When England visited in 2001, it was after a 13 year gap. In fact, in the entire decade of the 2000s, Pakistan hosted a grand total of twelve Test series until the Sri Lankan team attack in 2009. In contrast, Sri Lanka hosted twenty series, and Bangladesh fifteen over the same period of time.

In that sense, this contemporary idea of nomads on the cricket scene is an easy one to play with, because we can all shift the blame on the evil terrorists. We don’t have to think about why Pakistan was toured so rarely, why its players barely got any sort of exposure, why international sides felt that the sort of rules that apply for security in Pakistan don’t apply elsewhere. We don’t have to question why Australia had quit touring Pakistan in an era when 9-1-1 just referred to the American phone number for the police.

The other stock cliché that was used vociferously in the aftermath of the South Africa defeat, and the one that is used for all our previews, all our reviews, all our reports and stats is that Pakistan is mercurial. This is a cliché more versatile than Sir Ravi Jadeja, since it can be used liberally in both victory and defeat.

Of course, you might feel here that I am getting a bit too big for my boots. You mightwell point me to the article that almost every Pakistani who has read it has described as THE quintessential piece on Pakistani cricket – Osman Samiuddin’s Haal. For those of you whose lives have yet to be enlightened by it, Osman creates this idea that Pakistani cricket is often ‘possessed’ by this spiritual supernatural energy which seems to slip the whole team into some sort of trance, from where they only emerge after having pulled off a remarkable victory.

Osman uses politicians and folk-rock fusions and human psychology to illustrate his point, and if you read it, you would certainly find it hypocritical of me to extol that article and while denouncing the use of “mercurial” to describe Pakistani cricket as a cliché.

But the reason I choose to do so is because when observers and writers use the termmercurial for us, they leave it at just that. Pakistan is keeerrraazzzyyy  – look, even the Pakistanis say so – and so defeats like these are an inevitable consequence. Who cares about attempting to understand any further than that? But the thing is, every burst of mercurialness has its own unique identity, and it’s a shame when people don’t see that.

For example, a large chunk of the side’s batting core – Hafeez, Farhat, Akmal, and to a lesser extent, Shoaib Malik – are all part of what Hassan Cheema called the Lost Generation. Hassan used Danish Kaneria’s example to furnish his point, but these four are also his contemporaries. They entered cricket after the Sharjah/tri-series bonanzas had ended, and the circle excluding Pakistan from the game had gotten tighter and tighter. In the context of their careers, their achievements are relatively remarkable, simply because they have had a lot fewer opportunities than their international contemporaries. Therefore, to put their failures down to the mercurial nature of the team is reductive, because it sweeps larger issues under the rug.

Moreover, another reason that the mercurial cliché works so well these days is because the rise and continuously lonely battles of Captain Misbah means that this narrative has a lovely counterpoint – the dour, professional captain who’s trying his best to wean Pakistan off this habit of inconsistency.

Yet I’m not sure if that’s true.

Misbah’s approach in limited overs is often the “hold first, go berserk later” style. However, it is not associated with him because of a few high profile failures. In the 2007 T20 final, Misbah had played an incredible innings where he single handedly dragged Pakistan to five runs away from victory, but it was after he had earlier remained sedate in the face of falling wickets. Four years later in Mohali in the World Cup, Misbah’s failure would become even more infamous, but again, he ended that innings hitting everything in sight, and only seemed to time his assault late.

The point being that Misbah is not some antithesis to the mercurial type, but rather he seeks to channel and mould that destructive energy so that it can be used on the opponents rather than the self. And perhaps the biggest reason for trying to efficiently and carefully exploit that volatility is because Pakistan doesn’t have the sort of match-winners it did in the past. The bowling cupboard isn’t completely bare on that front, but the batting one is. The lost generation mentioned above has all seemed to have hit their ceilings a while ago, and so Pakistan has had to readjust. And Misbah’s genius is in recognising that and trying to find new ways rather than blindly sticking with the old

To conclude, the point isn’t that it’s wrong to call Pakistan mercurial nomads. The description is true, but largely incomplete. What is happening in Pakistani cricket today is the outcome of specific factors which have existed prior to the That One Incident Associated With Cricket In Pakistan. It would be nice if some of the people writing about such things would take the time and interest to engage with these ideas.

About Ahmer Naqvi

Ahmer Naqvi is the Brian Lara of his generation. He's a genius but his team usually loses.

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